The 48th Toronto International Film Festival, from which I just returned, technically runs through Sunday, but by this point, virtually every film in the lineup has screened at least once. So, I thought I’d seize this opportunity to share some impressions of this year’s fest and the awards hopefuls that played there and also offer some informed speculation about which film could pick up some wind behind its award season sails on Sunday when the fest announces the winner of its TIFF Audience Award.
What was the vibe at this year’s fest?
Given the ongoing strikes of actors and writers, red carpets and pre-screening introductions were far less star-studded than in other years. My concern was that this — and the fact that very few of the award season’s most highly anticipated films had elected to premiere at TIFF — could really depress attendance. That, in turn, might have posed an existential threat to a large organization with a staff that works year-round and was already coming off the difficult news that it would be losing its principal sponsor since 1995, telephone giant Bell (as in, the TIFF Bell Lightbox venue).
But when I ran into TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey at a reception late in the fest, he indicated that festival attendance was actually up year over year, as was apparently the case at the concurrent Venice Film Festival. I have no way of independently verifying that, but I also have no reason to doubt Bailey. Maybe numbers were low last year because of lingering COVID concerns, so they had nowhere to go but up? Who knows? But I’m happy if TIFF, which I’ve been attending/covering since 2007, is still going strong.
I will also say that, despite the strikes, there still were quite a few big names at the fest. To be sure, the attendance of several was clearly incentivized by the festival’s offer to honor them at the TIFF Tribute Awards, a gala dinner that raises money for TIFF’s philanthropic efforts. This year’s honorees were Spike Lee, who did not have a film at the fest, and a handful of people who did: Pedro Almodóvar, writer/director of the Sony Classics short Strange Way of Life; Patricia Arquette, director of the sales title Gonzo Girl; Colman Domingo, star of the sales title Sing Sing, which was just bought by A24 (and also of Netflix’s Rustin); Vicki Krieps, star of the sales title The Dead Don’t Hurt; Łukasz Żal, cinematographer of the A24 film The Zone of Interest; and Shawn Levy, director of the Netflix limited series All the Light We Cannot See.
Meanwhile, many presenters at the Tribute Awards also had ties to projects playing at the fest, including Barry Jenkins, who was presumably accompanying his partner Lulu Wang, director of the Amazon limited series Expats; Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone, stars of Arquette’s film; Taika Waititi, director of the Searchlight film Next Goal Wins; and Viggo Mortensen, director of Krieps’ film.
A handful of other stars were in town simply to attend fest premieres, thanks to waivers or various other extenuating circumstances. Among them: Nicolas Cage, star of the A24 film Dream Scenario; Christian Friedel, star of The Zone of Interest; Elliot Page, star of the sales title Backspot; and Neve Campbell, executive producer of the documentary Swan Song.
Which were the fest’s highest-profile world premieres?
Not that it mattered to the average Torontonian, but virtually all of the films with any awards aspirations that came to TIFF this year had previously screened at other major film festivals. They came from Sundance (Netflix’s Fair Play); Berlin (Sony Classics’ The Teacher’s Lounge); Cannes (The Zone of Interest, Neon’s Perfect Days and Anatomy of a Fall, the Palme d’Or winner); Telluride (Netflix’s Nyad and Rustin, Focus’ The Holdovers, Apple’s Fingernails and The Pigeon Tunnel, Sony Classics’ They Shot the Piano Player and sales titles Daddio and Wildcat); and Venice (Neon’s Origin, the latest from Ava DuVernay, and sales title Memory, starring Jessica Chastain and that fest’s best actor winner Peter Sarsgaard). One — opening night selection The Boy and the Heron (GKIDS), the latest animated picture from Hayao Miyazaki — had already been theatrically released in Japan.
Meanwhile, virtually none of the films that TIFF was set to world premiere came in with much awards buzz at all — but a few left with some.
My sense was that even the backers of Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction (Amazon/MGM) and Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario (A24), two smart and funny social satires, were surprised by the level of enthusiasm with which those films were greeted. Both now strike me as real contenders for lead acting (Jeffrey Wright and Nicolas Cage, respectively), screenplay (Jefferson for adapted and Borgli for original), and perhaps even picture and directing noms.
Emerging with somewhat narrower Oscar prospects are two thoroughly entertaining studio pics: Sony’s Dumb Money, a Craig Gillespie-directed/Paul Dano-led dramatization of the COVID-era GameStop brouhaha. The film probably stands its best shot in the adapted screenplay category, and maybe also the best ensemble SAG Award race. Apple’s Flora and Son, which, like the earlier John Carney films Once and Begin Again, is a charming music-centric dramedy that could be a force in the original song category. (“Meet in the Middle” is arguably the standout of several strong options, the compositions of which are central to the film’s plot, which is something that often appeals to music branch voters).
Joining the best documentary feature race, meanwhile, is Netflix’s Stamped from the Beginning, directed by 2023 MVP Roger Ross Williams. He also helmed this year’s narrative feature Cassandro (Amazon/MGM), documentary feature Love to Love You, Donna Summer (HBO Max) and docuseries The Super Models (Apple). Stamped goes deep on the history of racism in America, not unlike DuVernay’s aforementioned narrative film (although that one also looks at prejudice beyond America’s borders), for which Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor will be a best actress contender.
Finally, there were a few films that prompted pre-fest awards speculation but played to me as purely commercial: Searchlight’s Cool Runnings-like comedy Next Goal Wins, starring Michael Fassbender, and Amazon/MGM’s dramedy The Burial, led by Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones.
What about sales titles?
There were a few that had distributors buzzing, none more so than Hit Man, which reunites filmmaker Richard Linklater with Glen Powell, the actor he had previously cast in his films Fast Food Nation and Everybody Wants Some!!, and who is evolving into a full-fledged star. “This is the sort of movie that a big studio would have bought [at TIFF] in the old days,” one high-level exec told me at the fest. It will surely sell soon, probably to a streamer.
I also checked out James Hawes’ One Life, a dramatization of the life of Holocaust hero Nicholas Winton, who you’ve probably seen in this legendary clip. The film is not without its flaws, but I know that some distributors are interested in picking it up because of the moving portrayal of Winston as an older man by two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, who could theoretically be campaigned in the supporting actor race.
And then there’s Ezra, Tony Goldwyn’s affecting film about a father (Bobby Cannavale) and his autistic son (William Fitzgerald). The cast also includes Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro and Goldwyn’s Ghost co-star Whoopi Goldberg. “With the right support, I am 100 percent certain that this film can break through to a wide audience the way CODA did,” Goldwyn told me earlier this week.
So what’s winning the audience award?
Over the prior 16 years that I’ve covered TIFF, 14 TIFF audience award winners went on to nominations for the best picture Oscar, and five of those films won — Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Green Book (2018) and Nomadland (2020). That’s a pretty impressive track record.
But it’s impossible to confidently predict which film will win the TIFF audience award in any given year, not least because the process by which votes are tallied is a bit opaque. Voting is conducted online. The fest, in an attempt to be fair, supposedly curves scores based on the size of the venue(s) in which a film screened and how many times a film screened. And the fest apparently has anti-ballot-stuffing measures in place, but who knows how effective those are?
So, one can only offer semi-educated guesses, drawing upon one’s own impressions of films and one’s sense of how others at the fest reacted to films (through applause in the theater, chatter around town, etc.). And even then, one can be very wrong. For instance, I would have bet anything that Juno had the audience award wrapped up in 2007, based on the tremendous response it received in the room following its premiere but, somehow, Eastern Promises instead walked away with it. And then in 2011, even more shockingly, the Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now? beat out the likes of The Artist, The Descendants and Moneyball.
With that throat-clearing out of the way, I would venture a guess that the audience award will go to American Fiction. If not, perhaps Dream Scenario, Sing Sing, Dumb Money, Rustin, Nyad, The Holdovers or Origin. Hit Man can’t be totally ruled out but not since Where Do We Go Now? has a film without U.S. distribution won the audience award.
TIFF’s 2023 edition is now in the rearview mirror (though festival attendees’ “argh”-ing is still ringing in my ears), so it’s time to start thinking about the next stops on the awards circuit.
Next week, Disney will begin screening Gareth Edwards’ The Creator, a sci-fi flick starring John David Washington that the studio thinks could be more than just a below-the-line contender (think District 9).
Then, the New York Film Festival will run Sept. 29 through Oct. 13, and will host the North American premieres of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (Netflix), Michael Mann’s Ferrari (Neon) and Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (A24), all of which went over tremendously in Venice.
October will also bring the Newport Beach International Film Festival (Oct. 12-19); the Middleburg Film Festival (Oct. 19-22); the SCAD Savannah Film Festival (Oct. 21-28), which, among a lot of exciting programming, will be hosting 10th annual Docs to Watch panel that I moderate each year (panelists will be announced next week); and AFI Fest (Oct. 25-29), which is set to open with the world premiere of Sam Esmail’s Julia Roberts/Mahershala Ali vehicle Leave the World Behind (Netflix).
So fasten your seatbelts, the race is only speeding up.